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Ultrasound device implanted in skull may help target brain tumors

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
New research shows that ultrasound waves emitted from a device implanted in a cancer patient's skull could be the key to getting chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs into the brain. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News
New research shows that ultrasound waves emitted from a device implanted in a cancer patient's skull could be the key to getting chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs into the brain. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

One of the biggest obstacles to treating brain cancer is getting tumor-killing drugs past the blood-brain barrier that normally protects the brain from foreign invaders.

Now, new research shows that ultrasound waves emitted from a device implanted in a cancer patient's skull could be the key to getting chemotherapy and immunotherapy drugs into the brain.

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This ultrasound technology allowed doctors at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago to get a small dose of these drugs past the blood-brain barrier, according to a report published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications.

What's more, the treatment boosted the immune system's recognition of brain cancer cells, the researchers added.

"This is the first report in humans where an ultrasound device has been used to deliver drugs and antibodies to glioblastoma to change the immune system, so it can recognize and attack the brain cancer," said researcher Dr. Adam Sonabend, an associate professor of neurological surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

"This could be a major advance for the treatment of glioblastoma, which has been a frustratingly difficult cancer to treat, in part due to poor penetration of circulating drugs and antibodies into the brain," Sonabend added in a Northwestern news release.

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The study involved four patients with advanced brain cancer. They had already been treated with chemotherapy and had taken part in an experimental clinical trial, but both times their tumors returned.

The patients received an implant that uses ultrasound waves to produce "microbubbles" that temporarily open the blood-brain barrier.

Through these bubbles, their brains got a small dose of the chemo drug doxorubicin, combined with antibodies that would allow the immune system to better detect and attack cancer cells.

This combo boosted the recognition of cancer cells and reinvigorated the immune cells that are in charge of attacking and killing off tumors.

"Given the lack of effective immune response against these deadly tumors, these findings encourage us to envision a potential new treatment approach," said researcher Catalina Lee-Chang, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at Northwestern.

Researchers are planning a follow-up clinical trial that will treat an initial 10 brain cancer patients to determine safety, followed by another 15 patients to test effectiveness.

Previous large clinical trials have failed to show that immunotherapy can prolong survival in brain cancer patients.

However, Sonabend believes the treatment could prove effective if the antibodies and drugs are better able to enter the brain.

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"Here, we show in a small cohort of patients that when you use this technology, you can enhance the delivery of the chemotherapy and the antibodies, and change the tumor's microenvironment, so the immune system can recognize the tumor," Sonabend said.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more on brain and spinal cord tumors.

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